A Bright Shining Lie

1998 television film directed by Terry George

A Bright Shining Lie is a 1998 American TV movie about the life of former US Army officer and later MACV senior advisor John Paul Vann.

Written and directed by Terry George, from the Pulitzer-Prize-winning book by Neil Sheehan.
In war as in life, the difference between truth and deception is what a man allows himself to believe. taglines

John Paul Vann edit

  • [in his briefing over what's needed for the advisory effort in South Vietnam, complete with slides] Southeast Asia. Rubber, timber and manpower. Southeast Asia, the Communists want it and we wanna stop 'em. And in my hand, I hold the secret weapon to win the war in South Asia. [shows handful of rice] Rice. Rice, gentlemen. Rice. For the Vietnamese peasant, it is everything. They fought the Chinese, the Japanese, they fought the French for their rice fields. The Communists have hijacked that rebellion. [points to slides] This man, Ho Chi Minh, and his General Giap, have promised the farmers they will give them back their rice, while our man, President Diem... continues dealing it. We must regain the goodwill of the peasants, restore the good faith of the people. To win the war in Vietnam, we must take back the rice revolution, throw out the rice dealers and give them back their rice. We must wage war for the peasants, not against them. Build their houses, don't destroy them. Kill the enemy with this [shows dagger], instead of this [pointing to slide of B-52 dropping bombs]. In short, we must harness the peasant revolution to defeat the Communist revolution. Thank you.
  • [addressing US and Vietnamese troops preparing for the NVA assault on Kontum] All right, listen up, everyone. We are gonna hold the line here at Tan Canh, then mount a staged retreat back to where we are, Kontum. [describing map drawn on chalkboard] That will pull these North Vietnamese divisions out of the hills and when they do, we are gonna call in the B-52s and carpet-bomb each of these squares. We are gonna wipe out the Second, Third, and Fifth Division of the North Vietnamese Army. [gestures to Col Ly Tong Ba] My old colleague, Colonel Ba, will conduct a forward command defense and withdrawal. [shows picture an aide gives him] This is General Giap, commander of the NVA. He's a genius. He's never been beaten... till now. I've studied this man for ten years and we are gonna whip his ass. You know why? Because he wastes his men. Pours them away like piss in the wind. There's not a man in this room, not a man on that line out there I wouldn't die for. No matter what we've done with our lives, you and I can be proud today because we have the noblest of all professions. We are soldiers. The good Lord said it all about us. He said no greater love has a man than he lay down his life for another. And by God, this day will not end but I will see you all safely through it... and we will hold this ground.

Stephen Burnett edit

  • [last lines] John Paul Vann was America's warrior. He personified our good intentions, our arrogance, our courage, and ultimately our folly. He had fought to redeem the unredeemable, to salvage the doomed enterprise called South Vietnam. In death, he had triumphed over defeat while the rest of us are left to ask... "Why?"

Dialogue edit

[Vann takes out Ms Lee, a schoolteacher, and shows her a book he picked up during a raid]
John Paul Vann: Would you read the last entry?
Lee: [analyzes page] "The Americans are here. They have brought tanks and helicopters. The young men are afraid but I tell them do not fear because the Americans are huang phi." [to Vann] Huang phi, it's a word that means soft. [rethinks] Well, actually... decadent. Do you understand? [reads] "They can never win because they use only those of our people who are also huang phi. The peasants are with us because they hate the huang phi."
Vann: What do you believe?
Lee: Oh, I'm not interested in politics, Mr Vann.
Vann: What are you interested in?
Lee: My school. I enjoy it. You know, it allows me to decide my own life and that's a very rare thing for a woman here.

[After the Battle of Ap Bac and being dressed down by General Harkins, Vann meets Stephen Burnett and dismisses a newspaper report about the battle being "an important victory"]
Stephen Burnett: So what's the truth?
John Paul Vann: The most miserable damn performance I've ever seen.
Burnett: Would you talk about this?
Vann: Somebody has to.
Burnett: John, you have a military career and if we do this thing, a lot of people are gonna read it.
Vann: I understand. Start writing. South Vietnamese Command has no interest in fighting the Communists. The ordinary soldiers are willing but their officers' priority is to protect Diem's regime, rather than to stop Communist insurgency.
Burnett: What about all those things that we get, the casualty figures, battle reports, the briefings?
Vann: The numbers are all phony, they make 'em up. These battles are a joke. They attack areas that the VC have already vacated or they attack from one side and leave the enemy a wide-open back-door escape route.
Burnett: Surely American assistance has made a difference.
Vann: [sarcastically] Oh, yeah, that's helped. It's helped the Communists. We supply guns to the peasants and they turn straight around and give them to the VC. At Ap Bac we were being shot down by our own weapons. The US Army advisory program is a complete sham, totally ineffective.

[in 1965, John comes back to Vietnam and visits his close friend, Fred Weyand]
John Paul Vann: That's a lot of hardware out there.
Fred Weyand: It's phase one of General Westmoreland's three-stage plan. We put together a superior force, then engage the enemy on the battlefield. Three, wipe them out.
Vann: W... Well hell, Fred, I don't know if the enemy's gonna go along with that plan. We're not fighting a conventional war here. You can't roll out the tanks like it's World War II. I mean, Goddamn, hasn't the Pentagon learned anything in three years?
Weyand: John, you gotta learn to keep your mouth shut. It was a hell of a job to get you over here, even as a civilian. You're here to work with the aid program, right?
Vann: You're right, Fred.
Weyand: I read your briefing and I agree with you. We gotta win these people over. That's why I want you in charge of the aid program around Bao Trai. I'll get a good man to work with you. Let's try to put your ideas into practice.
Vann: OK, you're the boss.
Weyand: No, John, Westmoreland's the boss.

[Doug Elders goes to John's home after he receives a telegram about his mother's death]
Doug Elders: John. Come on. If you don't get moving, you're gonna miss the Tokyo connection. It's your mother, John, you owe it to her.
John Paul Vann: That's funny. "I owe her." My mother was a whore and I'm her bastard son. You know what my birth certificate says on it? John Le Gay, a son of a bitch. That's why those goddamned WASPs at West Point wouldn't let me in. Fucking bunch of hypocrites. When I was a little kid growing up in Norfolk, I used to see her screwing them in their cars. Grunting and carrying on. You know how she died? Somebody cracked her skull open with a whiskey bottle.
Elders: Go home and bury her, John.

[at John's house in Saigon, during Thanksgiving 1967, Muhammad Ali's draft dodging ticks him off]
John Paul Vann: I don't care what he calls himself. He dodges the draft, no Negro soldier's gonna fight. Lock his ass up.
Stephen Burnett: Hey, can I just say, John, what an extraordinary pad you've got here?
Doug Elders: It's called "Harnessing the best houses in Saigon."
Burnett: [snickers] That's the new USAID program. [he and Elders laugh]
Vann: What the hell's that supposed to mean?
Burnett: It's odd to see you in this context, that's all. When I met you, rice paddies and peasants and now...
Vann: What are you saying? You accusing me of selling out? I read your articles.
Burnett: Oh, have you?
Vann: Yeah. You're ready to surrender.
Burnett: Since when is criticism surrender?
Vann: Hey, screw that. Nobody's been more critical of how this war's been fought than me. But you seem to think it's your duty to spread this defeatist loser crap.
Burnett: Oh, winning and losing, that's what it's all about, isn't it?
Vann: A soldier's sole purpose is to win.
Burnett: I got no argument, but you're not a soldier, John, you're a civilian.
Elders: [sees conversation getting too heated] Come on, guys.

[Burnett talks to John after he's personally commended by Nguyen van Thieu over the defense of Kontum]
Stephen Burnett: John, congratulations.
John Paul Vann: Thank you.
Burnett: I have something that might interest you. [gives Vann a newspaper clipping]
Vann: [reads] "Former Vietnam veteran Douglas Elders claimed the US government has conspired to deceive the American people in order to pursue an illegal war in Vietnam." Well, I'll be dammed.
Burnett: Well, at least someone's prepared to stop peddling the lie.
Vann: Well now, what lie would that be?
Burnett: That we're here to solve Vietnam's problems. We are the problem and that's the truth.
Vann: Well, you see, Steven, there's your truth and there's my truth and they're two different things. All I know is up that road is old General Giap and when he and I speak to each other, we never lie.
Burnett: General Giap and you? John, John, the war's not about warriors any more. It's about children and women and rice paddies, and you know who told me that? You did. You did.
Vann: [contemplates] I gotta go. I got men holding the line up there. [gives back clipping and returns to helicopter]
Radio broadcast: Flights to Kontum will be cancelled. Repeat. Recent wind...
Kevin Doughtie: Boss, we really don't have the weather.
Vann: Come on, let's go.

Taglines edit

  • In war as in life, the difference between truth and deception is what a man allows himself to believe.

Cast edit

External links edit

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